Recently, it took a flatwoven wool rug cmore than two weeks to travel from Luton, Bedfordshire to southwest London. The rug’s source – an Etsy seller – and I sent back and forth dozens of messages. It would be there tomorrow. Oh, no, the courier now says Wednesday. Um, Friday. Er, next week. I can send you a different rug, if you want to choose one. No.
In the end, the rug arrived into my life. I don’t dare decide it’s the wrong color.
I would dismiss this as a one-off aberration, except that a few weeks ago the intended recipient of a parcel sent at the beginning of November casually mentioned they had never received it. Upon chasing, the courier company replied: “Despite an extensive investigation, we have not been able to locate your parcel.”
I would dismiss those as a two-off aberration except that late last year the post office tracking on yet another item went on showing it stuck in some unidentifiable depot somewhere for two weeks. Eventually, I applied brain and logic and went down to the nearest delivery office and there it was, waiting for me to pay the customs fee specified on the card I never received. It was only a few days away from being sent back.
And I would dismiss those as a three-off aberration except that two weeks ago I was notified to expect a package from a company whose name I didn’t recognize between 7pm and 9pm. I therefore felt perfectly safe to go into the room furthest from the front door, the kitchen, and wash some dishes at 5:30. Nope. They delivered at 5:48, I didn’t hear them, and I had a hard time figuring out whom to contact to persuade them to redeliver.
The point about all this is not to yell at random couriers to get off my lawn but to note that at least this part of the app-based economy has stopped delivering the results it promised. Less than ten years since these companies set out to disrupt delivery services by providing lower prices, accurate information, on-time deliveries, and constant tracking, we’re back to waiting at home for unspecified numbers of hours wondering if they’re going to show and struggling to trace lost packages. Only this time, there’s no customer service, working conditions and pay are much worse for drivers and delivery folk, and the closure of many local outlets has left us all far more dependent on them.
Also falling over this week, as widely reported (because: journalists), was Twitter, which for a time on Wednesday barred posting new tweets unless they were posted via the kind of scheduling software that the site is limiting). Many of us have been expecting outages ever since November, when Charlie Warzel at The Atlantic and Chris Stokel-Walker at MIT Technology Review interviewed Twitter engineers past and present. All of them warned that the many staff cuts and shrinking budgets have left the service undersupplied with people who can keep the site running and that outages of increasing impact should be expected.
Nonetheless, the “Apocalypse, Now!” reporting that ensued was about as sensible as the reporting earlier in the week that the Fediverse was failing to keep the Tweeters who flooded there beginning in November. In response, https://www.techdirt.com/2023/02/08/lazy-reporters-claiming-fediverse-is-slumping-despite-massive-increase-in-usage/ Mike Masnick noted at TechDirt how silly this was. Because: 1) There’s a lot more to the Fediverse than just Mastodon, which is all these reporters looked at; 2) even then, Mastodon had lost a little from its peak but was still vastly more active than before November; 3) it’s hard for people to change their habits, and they will revert to what’s familiar if they don’t see a reason why they can’t; and 4) it’s still early days. So, meh.
However, Zeynep Tufekci reminds that Twitter’s outage is entertainment only for the privileged; for those trying to coordinate rescue and aid efforts for Turkey, Twitter is an essential tool.
While we’re sniping at the failings of current journalism, it appears that yet another technology has been overhyped: DoNotPay, “the world’s first robot lawyer”, the bot written by a British university student that has supposedly been helping folks successfully contest traffic tickets. Masnick (again) and Kathryn Tewson have been covering the story for TechDirt. Tewson, a paralegal, has taken advantage of the fact that cities publish their parking ticket data in order to study DoNotPay’s claims in detail.
TechDirt almost ran a skeptical article about the service in 2017. Suffice to say that now Masnick concludes, “I wish that DoNotPay actually could do much of what it claims to do. It sounds like it could be a really useful service…”
The pile-up of this sort of thing – apps that disrupt and then degrade service, technology that’s overhyped (see also self-driving cars), flat-out fraud (see cryptocurrencies), breathless media reporting of nothing much – is probably why I have been unable to raise any excitement over the wow-du-jour, ChatGPT. It seems obvious that of course it can’t read, and can’t understand anything it’s typing, and that sober assessment of what it might be good for is some way off. In the New Yorker, Ted Chiang puts it in its place: think of it as a blurred JPEG. Sounds about right.
Illustrations: Drunk parrot (taken by Simon Bisson).
Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard – or follow on Twitter.